In the legal profession, one would think lawyers will feel more fulfilled as they rise up the career ladder: the higher the income and status, the happier they should become.
Well, not necessarily so. A survey of 6,200 lawyers about their career and health showed that the factors we normally associate with success in the legal profession — high income or a partner-track job at a prestigious firm — have little correlation with happiness and well-being, the New York Times reports.
In fact, lowly-paid lawyers such as public defenders and legal assistance attorneys are more likely to be report being happy that their high-income peers.
And, despite their huge income gap, the two groups reported about the same level of overall satisfaction with their lives, according to the study published in the George Washington Law Review.
In their assessment of their sense of well-being, junior partners are about the same level as senior associates, who are paid 62 percent less, the study shows.
“Law students are famous for busting their buns to make high grades, sometimes at the expense of health and relationships, thinking, ‘Later I’ll be happy, because the American dream will be mine,’ ” said Lawrence Krieger, a law professor at Florida State University and an author of the study. “Nice, except it doesn’t work.”
The problem with the more prestigious jobs, says Krieger, is that they do not provide feelings of competence, autonomy or connection to others. Public service jobs do.
Mental health issues have long plagued the legal profession, according to the newspaper. A Johns Hopkins study in 1990 found that lawyers were 3.6 times as likely as non-lawyers to suffer from depression.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, data from 1999 to 2007 suggests that lawyers were 54 percent more likely to commit suicide than people in other professions.
Why lawyers are susceptible to such dangers may be traced to the job itself: the long hours of work, demanding clients, pressure from peers and superiors.
Besides, the job requires an unhealthy degree of cynicism. “Research shows that an optimistic outlook is good for your mental health,” said Patricia Spataro, director of the New York State Lawyer Assistance Program, a resource for attorneys with mental health concerns.
“But lawyers are trained to always look for the worst-case scenario. They benefit more from being pessimistic, and that takes a toll.”
There is also general public hostility to the profession.
“People just seem to hate lawyers,” Spataro said. “There are thousands of prominent websites for lawyer jokes. That’s just horrific.”
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